About eighteen months earlier, when I still worked for Reuters News Agency, Claire had started a small beauty clinic in her sister-in-law's house near Brighton a couple of hour's drive from London where we lived. I hadn't paid much attention, but once I was out of work, Claire decided to start a second beauty clinic at the back of our house. Then, a third one up in Leeds where her family came from. She needed help. I was available to act as manager. Quite quickly, I could see that they were not going to make money, and I became more and more frantic about how to suture the open vein. It was Claire's money, but nonetheless, I cared about its loss.
She told me I needed a holiday, disposed of all the children for a week, and took me to Menton in the South of France where her father lived. It was during that week that we decided to close the clinics and to buy a new ship.
By the time we returned from Copenhagen, there was still an immense amount of work to do in getting rid of the clinic equipment, leases of premises and so forth. I completely forgot about GRAY, until jolted back to the realities of commitment by a call from the agent proposing a date for the next step, the inspection of the ship's hull after it had been drawn out of the water. Ship sales, like house sales, take place in two stages, the first being the promise to buy subject to conditions, and the second being completion after the removal of those conditions.
One way or another, I made difficulties, finally agreeing to a date early in December, not realising that by then Börnholm, within a few hundred miles of the Arctic Circle, would have virtually no daylight.
Claire could not leave work during the week, so I went back alone to Denmark. I took the overnight ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg, travelled across Jutland by train, then another ferry, and finally to Copenhagen on the other side of Zealand, where Sven had offered to put me up for the night. It was still a day's ferry journey to Börnholm.
It was a very small apartment, totally modern, totally wooden, totally shining, totally visible. I could see no dining room table, no third place set for a hungry Dominick. Apart from food, I needed something else like spiritual care, or aspirin, or support against Buyer's Remorse. In the kitchen, Mrs Sven picked me up and set me on a high stool like a vase of flowers. She produced a titbit. Sven produced some beer. They didn't - couldn't - sit themselves in the tiny kitchen, but they gradually served me a smörgåsbord which Mrs Sven must have spent hours to prepare.
Next day, Sven obliged me to go shopping on the way to the ferry to Börnholm. I felt he was continuing the care for me his wife had started. But, I am awkward with men. I bought the wool lined flying boots he pressed on me, but needed him to be a woman to make me accept the rough Norwegian sweater. A man caring about my body made me uncomfortable.
Arriving in Rönne on the near side of Börnholm, I found the ship, but no owner. He was at Neksö, on the other side of the island, even farther east. Would I like to come over? So, back on another ferry. Everything was dark. It was extremely cold. I didn't have the right clothes, just a thin plastic coat on top of a thin sweater from England. By now I had started influenza, had the beginnings of a fever, a runny nose, and no reserves of paper handkerchiefs.
The owner and his wife were childless. They offered to have me sleep overnight before the bottom inspection. It was an inviting idea. Like Sven's, their apartment was neat. But so small that when they offered me a chair, one of them had to stand up. I couldn't inspect the bedrooms, but it seemed likely that the apartment might only be tolerable for Mrs Larsen on condition that her husband spend much of the time at sea.
So I said I would sleep on the GRAY and see them in the morning. Larsen drove me over.
One of the problems about heating ships is distributing the heat evenly. On GRAY, this problem had not been solved. As I descended the companion ladder into the cabin aft, my feet entered a cube of heat and passed through it as my body and then my head became trapped in it. To begin with, I enjoyed the warmth, particularly in my feverish head. But the temperature gradient was so steep that every time I sat down my face got cold again. And there was no question of removing the cheap flying boots, the only warm garment Sven had been able to force upon me.
I thought a drink might help: schnapps and beer, no wine, nothing long. It was only when I fell over in the cabin that I realised I had gone from sobriety to drunkenness without a moment's intervening satisfaction.
I began to loathe the ship. There was a general smell of diesel oil leaked by the stove, the cabin had the dirt which accumulated from men dropping into it exhausted and uninterested in making it a home, just a refuge between turns at the wheel. There was a bench to lie on, but it was unsprung vinyl stretched tightly over horsehair. The vinyl was blue and had a large cigarette burn in it.. To the end of GRAY, nearly 19 years later, that burn remained. The little side bunks under the quarter deck hadn't been slept in for years, and looked too cold and dirty to clear out.
I wanted to escape very badly. Through the fog of drunkenness I felt I had to have some support from Claire in England. I would call her. I carefully got onto the quayside, wandering around hoping to find a telephone. It was early evening, though it had been dark for hours, not a soul around. My nose kept running. I tried to wipe a drip away. It had frozen.
If I tripped, I would be dead of exposure by morning, no one the wiser. Very carefully, I slipped back onto the GRAY, realising that the horrible diesel stove was all that lay between me and death.
It was still dark when Captain Larsen returned to wake me up and take GRAY to have her hauled out. He didn't wait for me to dress but sprung the ship off the quay and presented her to the cradle of the slipway, still in the dark. It was nearly ten in the morning. Then, of course, I discovered that the hull of the ship was thickly covered in a fresh coat of tar. Larsen had taken the ship out a few days earlier to have the bottom spruced up for sale, and doubtless to make sure I could see nothing of importance.
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